Growing up a Disney kid: Why it was better to play than work there

The Alex half of Wanderlust Marriage grew up in Florida. After my parents separated in Niagara Falls, NY and my father took custody of his kids, he was quite distraught and asked his 9 year old son and 8 year old daughter where they wanted to start a new life, preferably somewhere warmer. As little Alex had spent his 7th birthday at Walt Disney World, the kids choice was easy…Orlando! While we didn’t have much after the divorce, my father felt bad for us kids and spoiled us with Disney passes for a few seasons. And when I was 16 I wound up employed there and realized it was far better to play than work when growing up a Disney kid. Shocker I know.

Magic Kingdom, Cinderella's Castle, growing up a disney kid
As young teenagers, my sister and I actually became little trouble makers at Disney. My father, content to read a book on a bench in the sun, would let his 13 and 11 year old children go off on their own in the parks. As we had sadly grown a bit bored of many rides, we sought out a new, stupid way of making Magic Kingdom more fun- By throwing free condiment packets from certain rides at people, and being general troublemakers, all while trying not to get caught.

Lines are frequently long at Disney, for anything worthwhile at least, especially during summer vacation and Christmas. As it’s not very much fun to wait an hour and a half in the scorching heat for the Thunder Mountain ride, it was better to ride the Tomorrowland Transit Authority monorail, that circles around Tomorrowland, where there was usually no wait. This combined with the moving, aerial advantage over Tomorrowland’s attractions provided a great launching pad to hurl ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise at unsuspecting people’s heads, just before the monorail ducked inside an enclosure. Or we would fling and then immediately duck in the car. We knew where the 4 cameras were so we avoided that (20 years later I’m far certain this is monitored better, but back then Disney was a treasure trove of fun for misbehaving kids). And yes, we were terrible and I admit that.

Winnie the Poo ride, growing up a disney kid
Back then there was a Skyway ride that went from Tomorrowland to Fantasyland. You could catch the skyway one way, either way. During the day the lines were too long, but in the evening they cleared up. My sister and I liked to ride that for our “Grand Finale.” The skyway went over the Dumbo ride and there was always a wonderful concentration of people’s heads to drop things on. So we would always “make it rain” ala Pac Man Jones, and then immediately duck our heads below vantage point. And astonishingly, we never got caught by the employees. But one night, immediately after releasing the ketchup bombs over Dumbo, my father, who happened to be standing around in the area saw this and we locked eyes, as condiments fell onto many people’s heads. Suffice to say he was rightly furious and we were grounded from Disney for awhile. Many years ago Magic Kingdom got rid of the skyway. People waiting in line for Dumbo can rest easier now.

Fast forward a few years and all of a sudden I find myself toiling in a fast food restaurant, Peco’s Bill, in Adventureland. My duties included mindlessly putting food and drink orders together, stocking the salad bar and incredibly, looking after the condiment bar.

While the job was crap, it was pretty decent for a 16 year old as it allowed me free access to hang out in the park when I wasn’t working and I could bring up to 3 friends, 12 times per year. And yes, at that point I had retired from my condiment hurling days. But it was incredible to me that I was only paid $5,95 per hour, about the cost of a hamburger and fries and I dolled out  a couple hundred of those over the course of an hour. We always had leftover food at the end of each night but rather than let us hungry teenagers eat, the managers usually made us throw it away, as we needed to clean up and they did not want us eating on the clock. And the punishment for eating when you weren’t supposed to was immediate termination. So it was a treat when the managers let us eat. But there was a small unused stage with curtains in the dining room that was a popular hiding place for some of us kids to quickly stuff our hungry faces. One kid got caught and was terminated, luckily I never was. Disney stunk in that regard.

I worked at Peco’s Bill for a year, including on Grad Night, which was the night the park was open all night for Orlando area graduating high school seniors. I didn’t have many good friends in high school so rather than spend money on the event I chose to work it. It was disappointing to serve my high school peers rather than be among them for a few obvious reasons.

I went to school 5 days a week and worked every weekend, meaning I hardly ever had a day off when I was 16. Over the summer I picked up extra shifts around Magic Kingdom wherever I could- stocking retail shelves on Mainstreet USA, attractions greeting and occasionally janitorial work. Nobody would let me touch any electrical work. I did one time accidentally crash a cargo cart into the underground tunnel wall while trying to make a u-turn and busted a headlight (Think of the first Austin Powers movie, yup I did the exact same thing!).

I graduated high school at 17 and that summer went full time at Disney, moving over to guess where? Tomorrowland Attractions. And all of a sudden I was the one seating people onto rides and viewing the monitors on the Tomorrowland Transit Authority for any ramboxious kids standing in the trains. Anytime I saw one I would announce on the intercom for them to “please be seated, standing in the cars is not allowed.” Life had gone full circle, like a school teacher who in their previous life had chucked paper airlines at their teacher, and was now receiving the same fate.

Drinking on Disney rides
Years later as an “adult.” Drinking sake on the ‘It’s a Small World’ ride. You can’t buy alcohol in Magic Kingdom so this was imported from the Japanese pavilion at Epcot Center.

It wasn’t horrible working alongside Mickey and Minny  (who by the way are usually played by petite students who can sometimes be caught smoking cigarettes, in character, holding their heads in the underground tunnels below the Magic Kingdom). But it was definitely better to grow up playing alongside them, especially when they had to duck and cover. 

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8 thoughts on “Growing up a Disney kid: Why it was better to play than work there

  1. I loved this article Alex! My mother used to just drop my brother and I off on her way to work, and pick us up on the way home. Lol we behaved though!

    1. Thanks Kelly! That really means a lot that you said that!…Very cool that you and your brother got to have a similar experience as kids (but behaved! haha). It was awesome aside from the horrendous lines for all the good stuff, especially during peak seasons!

    1. Thank you! Yeah it was cool growing up getting to go to Disney so often. I certainly feel nostalgic about it. And it made up for the rough parts of childhood.

  2. I remember reading about Disney World in Florida in the early 80s as a child. I didn’t even dream to go there, it was simply unthinkable for my family to cross the Atlantic at the time. By chance, and for other reasons I’ve been to Orlando in 2005.
    Thank you for telling this story. It is a typical American one: school and working weekends!

  3. Thank you Tuscan, I really appreciate you reading and saying that!…The early 80’s is also when Epcot Center opened and certainly would have gotten much press for being a futuristic adult park added to the Disney family. Magic Kingdom opened in the early 70’s and was the driving force that increased the population of the Orlando area. My family moved from up north to Orlando in 1989. It has grown a lot since then and has changed a fair bit. Though much of the splendor of International Drive was there even then! hehe

  4. That’s amazing, Alex! I interned for Imagineering in 2006. It was unforgettable and perhaps a different experience, overall, than you had but I ended up staying there for 5 years afterward. There were things I wanted to do as a Disney Imagineer, like walk The Haunted Mansion with the lights on and walk Pirates of the Caribbean when the water was drained. Both of which I did. While I enjoyed it and I saw the workings of how it all operated, I’m a little regretful! You can never UNSEE it and it does ruin the magic a bit. So I understand where your pixy dust may have been whisked too far away to get back!

    1. Thank you so much for sharing, Mikkel! That’s awesome that you were an imagineer! What an amazing experience that must have been. Given I was very young and had quite different roles in the park, I never met any imagineers. I did however know a character who I went to high school with who played Minny Mouse. She told me it was so hot in her costume that she full on passed out once. Can you imagine what the kids were thinking? 😉

      That’s fantastic that you saw what you did, but I can also see how you feel torn about it. When my family had season passes as a kid, Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion were two of my favorite rides! And they’re still pretty cool as an adult, albeit it’s been nearly a decade since I’ve been to Disney. You’re reminding me that I’m due back for a visit! And now there’s Shanghai Disney. That’s be pretty sweet to check out!

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